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‘Things Change’ (PG)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 21, 1988

David Mamet's "Things Change" is a Mafia farce that plays like a bedtime story for adults. Written by the director in collaboration with cartoon fabler Shel Silverstein, it has the modest allure of a well-spun yarn -- a once-upon-a-time feel.

"Things Change" is a black comedy without shadows. In it, an old Sicilian shoe repairman named Gino (Don Ameche) is asked to pay a visit to a powerful Chicago gangster named Mr. Green (Michael Nussbaum), who makes him an intriguing offer. A friend of theirs -- who from a photograph bears an uncanny resemblance to Gino -- has been accused of murder. If Gino would make them an accommodation and confess to the crime, they would agree to pay him handsomely for the time spent in prison. In addition, Mr. Green says, he will make Gino's greatest dream come true, if it is within his power.

He should have no trouble because Gino's dreams are modest. All he wants is a boat and a ticket back to Sicily. After a momentary hesitation, Gino accepts Mr. Green's deal, and with a mob delinquent named Jerry (Joe Mantegna) as his keeper, settles into a hotel for the weekend to learn his lines for court on Monday.

Mr. Green and his associates hope for an uneventful few days in which Gino stays put, rehearses his speech and quietly ambles off to prison for three to five years. And with anyone other than Jerry in charge, that's most likely what they would have gotten.

But toeing the line -- which mob guys seem particularly keen on -- is problematic for Jerry. Already on probation for past indiscretions, Jerry likes to improvise, to write his own scripts. And figuring that Gino is about to go into cold storage, he suggests a last fling -- a high-roller's holiday at Lake Tahoe.

Jerry's plan is simple: Fly out, keep a low profile, shoot a few craps, win a few bucks, and fly back. And if everything that could have gone wrong hadn't gone wrong, it might not have been a bad plan. A chance encounter starts the ball rolling in the wrong direction. After arriving at the airport, Jerry runs into a limo-driver pal (W.H. Macy) who sees him with Gino and assumes that the older man is a powerful don. After giving the pair a ride to their hotel, the driver compounds the confusion by informing the manager of the importance of his passengers, making sure they get the royal treatment -- the best rooms, credit at the gambling tables, everything gratis.

Mamet is most in command of his material during the scenes in which Gino, who has had little chance in life to indulge himself, gets a taste of luxury and begins to blossom. Mamet is openly sentimental about Gino and the kind of honorable simplicity he represents. And he loves the society of mobsters he's created -- another men's club -- with their ceremonial displays of obeisance and formality.

The David Mamet of "Things Change" isn't the hard-boiled, evangelical moralist of his plays and earlier movies; this is Mamet the raconteur, the archivist of anecdotes and parables, Mamet the entertainer. The film has a princely carriage, and if Mamet's touch weren't so feathery, it might seem stiff, overcalculated, overcontrolled. The thing that saves it, and makes it seem so affectionate, is the fondness Mamet shows for his actors. A number of Mamet regulars put in an appearance here: J.J. Johnston plays Frankie, one of Mr. Green's operatives; Ricky Jay is Green's right hand; Robert Prosky plays the Tahoe family boss Joseph Vincent.

The stars fit nicely into this Damon Runyonesque family. There are few actors I'd rather watch than Joe Mantegna. His Jerry is too much of a wise guy for the other wise guys, and in Mantegna's mouth, Mamet's one-liners sound like nuggets from a loser's roughneck philosophy. Mantegna's energy as an actor may seem crude -- he has so much of it -- and at least so far in his career he hasn't plumbed the depths, but he's alone among a handful of performers in his ability to turn his characterizations into galvanizing feats of personality. It's not that his performances are miraculous; he's not that kind of actor. They're merely perfect, down to the last detail.

There's a smooth rapport between the two lead actors here. Still, the movie falls almost by default to Ameche. As Gino, he is restrained, but it's a restraint mixed with hamminess, and that makes him the perfect Mamet actor. The work Ameche does here is enormously skillful and precise, and that includes the hilarious Sicilian accent (which makes him sound faintly like Chico Marx). Playing a cipher isn't easy. As written, Gino resembles the Chauncey Gardiner character Peter Sellers played in "Being There" -- because he's so vague, he merely becomes the sum of what is projected onto him. But given that Gino is a fantasy figure to begin with, Ameche invests him with a quiet solidity and courtliness. It's no wonder, then, that when Tahoe boss Vincent meets him, he greets him as an equal -- royalty greeting royalty.

In the sweetheart lines he has written for Ameche, Mamet appears to be tipping his hat to the older star. And that air of appreciation spills over into the rest of the film. For about three quarters of its length "Things Change" is rich with unexpected developments. But after Gino and Don Vincent have their meeting, and it's revealed that the other Mafia heavyweights, including Jerry's boss, are on their way to Tahoe, it seems to stall.

The film's climax, in particular, is a disappointment. Mamet isn't a natural moviemaker, and his films don't supply the sort of physical pleasures -- the visceral splendors and the release of the senses -- that someone better attuned to the medium might provide. But what he's good at, he's good at -- plot, structure, dialogue, character. The plotting here is deftly worked out, and the filmmakers have done a marvelous job of hiding the farce mechanics so that the complications and odd turns seem natural. The movie is modest and winning, and we almost feel guilty for wanting it to be more -- but we do. The spirit of camaraderie and the love of performers performing is infectious, though. It may not be enough, but it's close.

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